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Plump Girls Pinched with Butter
Jane Messer


Wills and I were holidaying in the mountains of Mexico, and I was living as if in a dream, imagining that away from everything we knew that I could act without consequence, as if I were on the verge of another life and didn’t share my life with Wills. Would the portent of remorse stop me before it was too late? For a few days I didn’t know or care. I was living in another country with a book and a man, in love with the writer’s story and not my own. 

The writer was Italo Calvino. The story was “Under the Jaguar Sun”. We were there, under that sun, in 1991. I was imagining Calvino: the narrator seemed very much like the author might have been himself. I read the story as if it were autobiographical, making the mistake of believing it had been lived and could be again. On reading it before arriving in Mexico (the book picked out in a hurry and read on the plane), I was immediately inspired, and imagined that Wills and I could spend our time similarly to Calvino’s couple. 

A good half of his story is set in Oaxaca (his opening line -- “Oaxaca is pronounced “Wahaka.”), a small city situated in the dry mountains north of the famed Mayan jungles, north of the Chiapas peasant revolt. As it happened, we were headed there too. 

This is everything that I thought I wanted of our holiday there, with “Under the Jaguar Sun” my guide: to eat the “haute cuisine” of the region as his couple had beginning with a stay at the grand “Le Hotel Presidente” where, like Calvino’s couple, we would contemplate the meaning of the antique painting of two lovers, a nun and a priest, and like them too, recover some of the passion that we had lost together.

It was no small sum to want to forget my troubles and have both of us live beyond the old cares that we were familiar with. And it wasn’t to be. We walked through the portentous, tall doors kept from the original convent, through to reception, a tiled, cool room where Wills made the inquiries of Le Hotel Presidente. The fellow behind the desk spoke in English, immediately transposing the pesos into American dollars. With some shock I looked behind him to the hotel’s brass name plaque. Calvino’s story had been written nine years earlier, and now the most expensive and historic hotel in Oaxaca had changed its name. Having been taken over by the American chain it was called Le Hotel Stouffer Presidente. The pesos spoke clearly enough: we couldn’t afford to stay there.

* * *

This didn’t bother Wills. He wasn’t interested in the Calvino story or in shadowing it. He preferred his “Frommer’s” -- practical advice for the budget conscious traveller.

In Mexico Wills was all talked-out. He was feeling exhausted, fragile even. We’d reached a hiatus in our marriage. (Yes, our last impulse had been to marry: that had slowed the pace down considerably). A kind of rest period that felt like our emotions were in abeyance had settled in, our passion put aside. He’d always wanted me, but now it was slower between us. He was quiet with me, though less troubled about it than I, more willing to consider our life companionable. We cuddled, but the thought of sex made us both a little anxious. I hadn’t felt nutty, furious, soft and doe-eyed or hanging-out for sex with Wills for some time.

Hope had been important before, now it was forgotten. A resolve had formed itself within me not to want more. Was this contentment? It certainly wasn’t as dramatic as happiness. Was it harmony perhaps? I hadn’t even been searching for that... At thirty five, trying to get pregnant with Wills’ old sperm and my sorry tubes, I wasn’t content. When I could last remember feeling anything much, I had been wanting.

So you see the trouble was not all mine, but ours to share: waiting for that spark of new life to ignite joy again. We had been trying to have a baby for years.

* * *

In Mexico Wills was in the mood to do and see everything, but frugally. He was notionally paying for my share of Mexico from his Sydney law practice, while I put aside money from my tiny classical CD store for our baby/IVF program/overseas adoption, whatever was to come first. While Wills was in the mood to be guided by our Frommer’s, I was in the mood to be led by fiction. Where Frommer’s offered “detailed maps”, Calvino described in beautiful terms the painting found in Le Hotel Presidente. I wanted to do it the way the “Calvinos” had done it. Saying this to Wills he laughed and said, “That’s impossible,” not taking me seriously. He didn’t want to play the game with me, and it needed us both. 

Already, on realising that we wouldn’t be staying at our leisure at “Stouffers”, I felt a resentment rising that spilt itself over Wills. I tried to convince him otherwise.

“Imagine lying snuggled up in one of the old wooden beds here,” I argued in a whisper a few feet from the reception desk, “between thick cotton sheets. Above us a Madonna, perhaps even a small black Jesus.”

“We have to go to church for a black Jesus,” said Wills. “We simply can’t afford to stay here.”

“At least take a walk around, or have a drink at the bar. There’s a painting I want to see,” I said. Wills put our bags temporarily to one side. Through another doorway I found the painting that Calvino’s couple had earlier looked upon. 

An abbess stood beside a priest. They had been lovers many centuries ago. Her body was just the slightest bit turned towards his. Her face surrounded by its wimple was plain, but luminous even through the grime of centuries. The priest’s gaze was steady and unabashed. The painting was dark and light, sombre and exhalted. I tried to find the look of the nun’s love, the whisper of breath leaving her body, the sigh of love, but the look was elusive. My Spanish was a little better than Wills’, but I did not need to clumsily translate the inscription which filled the bottom half of the image, as Calvino had translated their love perfectly, before us: “...when the priest came to die, the abbess, twenty years younger, in the space of a single day fell ill and literally expired of love (the word blazed with a truth in which all meanings converge)...”

I hesitated. Her childless love intimidated me. Or was it her childless death that frightened me? Perhaps I should have communicated this to Wills and found the reassurance that the best lovers can offer. Instead I glumly recalled that it was at this point that Calvino’s narrator believes he understands his wife Olivia’s turn of thought without a word spoken. I didn’t consider for a moment that Wills was sharing my memory of the story. He had read it only once, and anyway he was not a Calvino aficionado.  

We turned away but did not go on to eat chiles en nogada  in the abbess’s restaurant as Olivia and her husband had. We hailed a cab and asked for a tour of six hotels that we’d picked out in Frommer’s. At each stop Wills or myself leapt out and inspected the rooms, while on the way we took in the town. Out in the suburbs, a mile from the center of town and cheaper because of this, the Casa de Huéspedes Arnel was more comfortable than my hurried inspection first revealed. In the center of the hotel’s U there was a lush garden of palms. In the morning the hotel cats ran from the womens’ hoses which dowsed the miniature jungle, while the caged parrots danced beneath the sprinkles of water. At breakfast, which Wills and I ate outside, the courtyard was damp and cool. Later, on asking I discovered that the wife was Mayan, and it was she who had brought the parrots and planted the garden of vines and palms.

By climbing the iron stairs to a rooftop laundry area I looked down into the garden where Wills was reading his Frommer’s, then out across the city to the mango and cactus plantations, and in other directions, towards the pyramids of Monte Albán and Mitla. Feeling the light breeze on my neck, but glad to be alone when I could have been breezily brushing my lips over Wills, it didn’t occur to me that the “Calvinos” had missed this view and the intimacy of the woman’s garden of earthly delights. Perhaps I should have dwelt on my advantages longer...

In Calvino’s story the couple have enjoyed a companionable celibacy for some time. Through the exploration of the cuisine they rekindle their passion. The ruined city of Monte Albán features, for it is here that Olivia draws out a connection between the subtleties of the food they have been eating and the violent history of conquest and religion. She asks her guide what happened to the flesh of the men and women who were sacrificed to the Zapotec and Miztec gods. The guide prefers not to answer, or perhaps doesn’t know. The narrator and Olivia then speak with their more effusive friend Salustiano, and between them the three hint at the origins of some of the more complicated tastes in Mexican cooking. For instance the mole sauce, an intricate mixture of chiles, spices and chocolate might have been created to hide or enhance the flavour of human flesh. Calvino’s narrator imagines at one meal that he is being eaten by Olivia. Her teeth are as fine as her sensibilities.  During the meal he watches her teeth rather than her eyes, imagining himself chewed and torn between them; such is the flavour of the story.

It is not until near the end when he consumes Olivia’s “whole fragrance” while eating a dish of aromatic meatballs called gorditas pellizcadas con manteca  -- “plump girls pinched with butter”-- that his, then their, passion is rekindled. They return to their room that night (no longer at Stouffers, for they have moved on south to the Mayan jungles). They have together a night of loving as “inspired” as any that has “blessed the finest moments of our joint life”. 

The narrator says it is the name “gorditas pellizcadas con manteca” that he was “especially savouring and assimilating and possessing”. I held on to this, rereading it again beneath the hotel palms, savouring every word of it, in love with the story, the author and the fleshy meatballs. Wills was packing our bags for an expedition to the town of Zachilla. We were taking our camera and the Frommer’s, but as with other days we’d eat the local food.

We ate often (against Frommer’s advice) from market and street stalls, and at the cafes that surrounded the zócolo. We walked, we rode busses, we ate food as we found it. Around the Casa de Arnel to the zócalo, the town square, we explored side streets and found homely comida familias, family restaurants that served limited menus. But the food was not as deliciously “secretive” as in Calvino’s descriptions.  I had no idea where the “Calvinos” had eaten, other than one meal that was by implication eaten at Stouffers. To treat us both, Wills suggested we have a meal there, but the menu didn’t include chiles en nogada, the first dish mentioned by name in the story. Instead, the menu reflected the change in ownership, and we were both disappointed.  

Walking through Oaxaca’s city market a vendor offered us grasshoppers the size of a small dried chile. They looked hot but tasted remarkably like a sun-dried tomato. That evening we bought candied fruit and vegetables, a lime stuffed with sticky coconut, and sweet thick wedges of sugared pumpkin. Wills sought out the sweetest varieties. His lips glittered with sugar. During our kiss the long awaited passion was felt between us, until the sugar dissolved, and by the time we returned to the Casa de Arnel, the kiss had settled back into history...

The resentments of those in love can spoil the lovliest of moments. For even as I held Wills, my own glazed fruit, and savoured our low-life, I did resent Calvino’s couple their experience. There was nothing more that they hungered for, nothing undone at the end.

* * *

We were a half hour away by bus from Oaxaca in the town of Zachilla, inspecting the wood market, a dusty spread of sticks and bundled branches, planks and logs. We dawdled on, allowing ourselves to get a little lost, and found a place without a sign, just a wide verandah and outdoor tables to eat at. A few goats were tethered by the gate. There was simply the plate of the day, no menu. It was a grizzly dish which prompted us to order tequilla and beer: pig’s feet, barbequed sheep’s balls, tongue and some chops. The balls were black, the skin above the sack a dark twist a little like hand-spun sugar or glass, and they looked just as hard.

“I believe it is possible,” I said to Wills looking at my plate, thinking of Calvino’s “discovery” of the cuisine of human sacrifice. His food had been camoflaged with spices and sauces. Our dish was brutishly unadorned.

“That it’s possible to eat these bollocks?” asked Wills. “How many lambs,” he said carefully, as though “lambs” were too tender, too vulnerable to say briskly, “might this animal have fathered if it hadn’t been castrated?”

“Don’t they put one male in with dozens of females? They’re polygamous like Mormons and Papua New Guineans.” 

“I was thinking,” he said, returning us to ourselves, “that you were thinking about my balls.”

“I don’t know what to think anymore about husbandry.” I followed him with a gulp of tequilla and then some beer. “Yours look a lot fresher actually.” We held each others eyes and giggled about our “problem”, then looked at each other sadly, a rare moment of camaraderie on this holiday. Our lovemaking had become so listless, and it seemed that when the sex had waned so had our daytime intimacies. I made an effort to smile cheerfully. “Come on, let’s eat up.”

We took up our forks, stabbing a ball each in unison.  Fork in one hand, we sucked on our lime and salt, downed a mouthful of tequila and bit...

We had had our “parts” studied medically and had talked about this endlessly: neither of us were wonderfully fit for reproduction, and Wills even less than I as it turned out in the sperm count. This holiday was supposed to be helping him recuperate from years of over-work and too much sugar. Our doctor wanted his sperm to return swimming faster and further. It was hard to hope for a baby and enjoy lovemaking. The early days of trying to conceive when there’d been the thrill of the chase were long gone, and sex had become so purposeful as to now be joyless.

“They’re not so strange,” said Wills, “quite ordinary really.”

The flavour was a little rich but having been barbecued it was not, after all our apprehensions, intimidating.

“I wonder what they are called,” I said, thinking of those other meatballs, the  gorditas pillizcadas con manteca, the plump girls pinched with butter. That dish had sounded delicious.

Wills looked away towards the daughter of the family, a girl of maybe twenty. She was near the kitchen door filling water jugs. We were down the dusty verandah a way. The young woman was petite and her long braided hair jet black. I guessed that there was no Spanish in her blood, for she looked to my Pacific eyes almost Asian with her flat cheek bones and black titled eyes.

“She’s beautiful isn’t she,” I said, “and will probably have lots of babies. She looks a lot fitter for reproduction than me.”

“So many people around here are,” he said. “Beautiful, I mean.” With a glance he acknowledged that he’d half set that up.

“In the Calvino story,” I began, about to tell Wills about the meatballs and wondering if I could ask the girl what the dish was called. Though maybe it didn’t have a name. 

Wills interrupted. “Eat up!” He picked up a sheep’s ball and handed it to me, taking one for himself. 

“If we can eat prawns, we can eat grass-hoppers, we can eat scrotum.”

“Scrotum’s too medical, and is a different kettle of fish. Not an insect,” he said, taking another nibble. 

“Whatever. We shouldn’t talk about this stuff, we just argue,” I said, pushing my plate away. “We shouldn’t talk about our hopes and desires we just argue.” Saying this I felt utterly flat and despondent. 

“We’re not arguing, we’re just irritable.”

Now a strapping young man was sweeping the verandah. “Time to leave,” I said.

We were drunk and grumpy. The sun on the walk back to the bus stop was low, but strong. It seemed to slow us down when really it was Wills who was slow while I paced myself to him impatiently. I just wanted to get on that bus and slump.

“I feel worse than drunk,” he said. “A lot worse. I’m having stomach pains. They started this morning, but I thought they’d pass.”

“Then why did you eat that meal? You should have told me.”

He did look a little grey, though while I felt concerned my heart didn’t go out to him. I wasn’t giving him my heart, but keeping it for myself, where, I see now, it was not used. I resisted sympathy and said something pragmatic like, “We’ll be on the bus soon and then home.”

By the time we got back to our hotel room Wills was white and withdrawn. He went straight to bed. Soon it was clear that he had a very high temperature. He sweated, and was hot and red across his forehead, hot and then cold all over. The illness worsened by the hour. He was running to the bathroom. We should have been more careful at those street stalls, I thought. I filled the jug beside our bed with boiled water, wiped his face and hands with cool water, and retreated outside to write letters beneath the palms. I didn’t mention his illness in my letters. As twilight turned to night I wondered what I should eat for dinner, as on every other night we had gone into town together. I walked to the nearest cafe and came back with my dinner and bottled fruit juices for Wills. He was sleeping then waking and shitting, dreaming and asking for water which he was too exhausted to do more than sip at. I slept fitfully beside him, keeping my distance as he was dank with sweat. He wasn’t going to be returning home fit and healthy after all.

The next day was the same. I breakfasted alone. I wrote in my diary over a coffee, making a note of the “grippe” that he had contracted. He had soaked through all his t-shirts. Rather than take the long walk to the laundromat, I hand-washed his clothes on the roof top laundry. I felt very peaceful and detached up there, pegging the sodden shirts on the string line with the vast plains and grey green mountains around me, visible through the gaps between the clothes. The mountains were very still while the shirts idled in the breeze. I felt refreshingly alone and undistracted. I hung around the hotel all day, happy to do so while Wills slept. The next day was the same.

On the third day I went in to town. His condition had not changed, though I had fed him some fruit and toast. Members of the Cruz family had asked about him. “Wills es enfermar,“ I explained. Town was different alone, and I felt a little exhilarated. I wandered deeper into the markets than before. I stood at a bus stop for no reason other than to watch the passers-by, and resisted the affection of a young American who introduced himself. I didn’t mention Wills, which probably explained his enthusiasm. Back in the zócalo I had a coffee near Stouffers and thought I’d go in again. I stood before the couple in the painting. I could see them both looking heavenwards, in love with each other and with Him. I wanted to look downwards with Wills, to the good earth and our crawling baby. 

The painting celebrated their love and was in awe of her death. If the abbess hadn’t expired without protest there would be no painting. The luminosity in their faces that I’d seen earlier turned waxen, and the whole idea of her death struck me as creepy.

I returned to Wills after a couple of hours, but my presence seemed unnecessary, for having given him a clean t-shirt, water and juice, there was little else for me to do. I wondered if antibiotics would help. I had tried to discuss his condition at the pharmacy when buying aspirin, but hadn’t had any success. He was still running a temperature even with aspirin. I’d bought a thermometer and looked at the readings: 102, 103, 104, 103. Wills himself had withdrawn into his delirium. Sometimes he mumbled that he was having nightmares, but couldn’t tell them to me, sinking back into sleep. He was unaware of me when I slept beside him at night. The sheets turned grey and soft. I considered asking for new ones. 

On the fourth day I looked again at my phrase book and wondered about doctors. It all seemed very difficult, for how would I get one to the hotel? I had difficulties understanding what was said to me over the phone. Face to face I was more confident. Wills could barely walk to the bathroom, so how would I get him out? I thought I’d leave it one more day and on an impulse, took the bus for a second visit to Monte Albán.

I walked up through the ruins of the elevated city, the remants of the buildings separated by great expanses of dusty soil. I reached the highest pyramid and climbed to where it plateaued. This was the site of Calvino’s questions, it was up here that the worshippers had witnessed the human sacrifices, the gifts to the gods two thousand years ago. 

Tipping my head back and letting my skin bathe in the sunlight, I felt close to the sky. I felt weightless that high, buoyant and alone. I closed my eyes and was losing my bearings, recklessly unbalanced with my head back. Dizzy, I looked across the huge plains that I had crossed earlier to reach the pyramids. I saw a compact figure skimming across the plains away from these ruins and the desolation of barbequed meat and human sacrifice, and away from Wills and our childless love, for I did love Wills. Bitterness rose in me, as sharp as lime.

Calvino’s story ends at the Mayan jungle temples of Palenque. His narrator climbs to the Temple of the Sun, to the relief of the jaguar sun, to the Temple of the Foliated Cross and the Temple of the Inscriptions. He is dizzy with the heat. He climbs down “into the light of the jaguar sun -- into the sea of the green sap of the leaves.“ The sun courses through us all, he writes, its solar energy runs through our veins. The narrator and Olivia eat a meal after the climb, and look at each other with the intensity of serpents. Calvino goes further, to the sun itself, an astronaut amongst writers: “as we were aware, in our turn, of being swallowed by the serpent that digests us all, assimilated ceaselessly in the process of ingestion and digestion, in the universal cannibalism...” 

So too worked the sun upon my un-hatted head at Monte Albán. I imagined Wills and I lying on the stone, frolicking licentiously under the midday sun whose life-producing rays would infuse our bodies. I was playing the part of the plump girls pinched with butter while simultaneously Wills cavorted as the meatballs: the dish spoke for both of us of our dreams of fertility and desire, of passion leading to pregnancy. Under the sun on the hot rock, our blood would strengthen, cells renewing and nerves rebuilding, hungry to form new life.

Sick Wills. In the morning he had taken a shower with my help. While he washed with the water streaming down him, I’d stayed in case he fell. I rubbed his skin with a face washer and soap to ease his aching limbs. His body was streaked with colour: fever flamed red around his chest and loins, his cheeks and neck. He was much thinner and stooped and looked very much older than his forty-one years. I thought, “What if he died here?” My next thought had been for our childlessness. His penis looked all the more flaccid with the stoop of his shoulders and his weary expression. I’d forgotten compassion over these days of his illness; it hadn’t welled up in me but had actually diminished. The year of feeling very little, the blandness of emotion I’d been experiencing disintegrated in a moment, and as I handed him a towel I was furious with his weakness, this ailment, his failed virility. I looked out the window, my eyes wet with angry tears. Wills was too ill to notice. I thought of the six years that separated us in age: he looked aged, I did not. I wanted to get away from his sick body. He carried death in it.

Overhearing other tourists at the ruins discussing where they were next headed it occurred to me to simply leave. I considered what I had with me: my credit cards, a few travellers cheques. As usual, my passport hung in a slim pouch beneath my shirt, though I needn’t have brought it with Wills in the room. I could access my savings via fax, perhaps my Phone Bank account would work. I had my camera, my diary to write in over a coffee, and even Calvino’s book. Reflecting on this, I realized I’d brought too much for a day’s outing - had I known then? Perhaps I’d meet up with another young American. Perhaps we’d sleep together. I might even fall pregnant. Unlikely with my history, but still... I pushed the idea away, it wasn’t what I wanted. 

The Cruz’s would look after Wills surely. I quickly walked back down through the sandy soil to the tourist stalls and the bus stop. There was a bus heading further south. 

* * *

Just as on our trip into Oaxaca, on the journey out through the mountains the trip was tricky. The single lane road was littered with pot holes. Hair-pin bends were numerous. Our driver wore leather gloves. His little Jesus’s and other icons of safe passage dangled around the blue satin frieze at the top of the windshield. (Early on the morning of New Year’s Day, we’d witnessed the blessing of these busses for the new year’s journeys.) Road-side altars, pastel coloured arbors with plastic flowers for the Madonna, testified (I assumed) to roadside deaths. We passed peasants walking with baskets of produce, donkeys with carts, children who waved. I recalled that in Calvino’s story they had driven south in a comfortable private car with their friend Salustiano. This recollection was the antithesis of my next memory: when we had driven in to Oaxaca in a similarly rickety vehicle, I had been reading the news of a bus in northern Mexico which had lost the road just before Christmas, with many of the passengers killed. 

I didn’t think of Wills, or I did, but in furious denial. I staged a scene where the Cruz’s nursed him back to health, and thought that the Consulate, if it came to that, would see to his safe return, and that his traveller’s cheques were all in order. I didn’t give a thought to the future, for life beyond the fantasy back home.

The bus driver stopped at a roadside food joint for lunch. After getting some rice and beans I sat down, and found myself next to him. He was vigorously eating a large plate of chicken and downing glasses of tequila with loud sucks of lime. I watched horrified. He became more and more voluble, until turning away from a friend who had been standing at the front of the bus near the door, on the lookout for approaching traffic and straggling donkeys, he spoke to me in a fast Spanish. A few words made sense. He was bragging about his driving prowess. We were just past New Year and perhaps he thought the blessings were still thick upon his bus. I saw death waving at me from around the next hair-pin bend, and felt very frightened of returning to the vehicle with this drunkard. I didn’t want to die in a bus crash, to die at all, and discovered with a surge of desire for Wills that I was hopeful after all.

I offered the woman behind the counter money to ring me a taxi back to Oaxaca. Having fled Wills, I now desperately wanted to return to him. One imagined death (my own, just then) awakened me with a start to the real possibility of another -- Wills’. He was very sick! What had I been thinking of? Dream turned to ordeal as we sped back narrowly missing donkeys and busses on the way, soaring up hills in the old VW, witnessing huge vistas, then racing down between the narrow streets of ragged villages. My feelings altered with the altitude, flying between remorse and fear and hope that he wasn’t worse than when I had left him. It was evening by the time of my return to the Casa de Arnel. I had asked the taxi driver, whose English was good, if he knew of a doctor. I found Wills lying in bed half-asleep.

“I have a taxi waiting outside so that we can go and see a doctor.” He looked at me with relief. “Ah,” I said, “you’re not delirious anymore.” I lent down to pull the sheets back. He was pungent and familiar: smelly with black-grey bristles and tousled hair. I lay down on the bed and held him close. 

“Have this aspirin before we go,” I said, giving him a glass of water and the pills, taking a couple myself. My head was pounding.

“I don’t know that I can walk that far.”

“Yes you can, the car’s just outside. Lean on me.”

While we waited in the doctor’s rooms I composed descriptive sentences in my notebook, mumbling them until they sounded right. I wanted there to be no mistake as to the extent of Wills’ illness, which I thought might now include “deshidratado” -- dehydration.

“What did you do today?” he asked me while we waited.

“I went to Monte Albán again.” 

“It’s good you’ve had time on your own.” Wills said this without rancour.

“Do you think so? Why is that?”

“Oh...even sick I was glad to be alone for a few days.” He trailed off, unable to concentrate. This was only half of the answer.

In the taxi back via the pharmacy where I collected numerous drugs for Wills’ desperate condition I took up his question again, wanting to find an opportunity where I could give him my “answer”, my confession.

“At Monte Albán I thought of leaving you forever.”

“Ah. I thought of leaving you too. I thought I might be going to die.”

“Oh how awful!” I said. “And I even got on a bus, I thought of disappearing...” It was as if I’d put my heart down on a stone tablet at Monte Albán, that I had been ready to leave it there on a wish as willingly as had the Indians who competed to sacrifice themselves. 

Again Wills left what I had just told him aside, as if he hadn’t heard. There were things he wanted to tell me. “I thought you had been gone a long time, though I couldn’t tell how long. I didn’t want to die.  I found myself also thinking of you, of having to leave you here alone if I were to die, and that we hadn’t finished our holiday or finished many other things... That it wasn’t our time yet.”

“What other things?” I asked.

“You know,” he sighed. “The same thing as always. Children.”

I began to weep. Without looking up I could feel by the cobbled and bumpy streets that the taxi was nearing our hotel. I desperately wanted to be alone with Wills. He had my hand firmly in his and was squeezing it, not just to reassure me, but himself too. He needed to touch me. “It is all I have thought about the whole holiday here,” I said, my head bowed. The truth of this filled me, and Wills too. “All the time, no matter what we did... You should never have eaten all that candied fruit, you were supposed to cut down.”

“Yes.” He ignored my foolish reprimand. “That’s why I haven’t wanted to sleep with you. I just didn’t want to have to hope for that any longer. A simple conception.”

“I so much want us to have children. Us, Wills, us.” The taxi pulled up. The driver would have understood all that we were saying, but I didn’t care. Perhaps he could bless us in some mysterious way -- a Mexican miracle, all that faith, the ever-present cycles of life and birth and death. That’s what Calvino had left aside: birth, the beginnings of solar life. I helped Wills out of the car. Feeling dizzy as he stood up he held on to me. I rang the bell at the solid gate which was locked nightly with the dark. Invisible on the other side sat a bent old man, the great-grandfather. I imagined him slowly getting up out of his chair in the dark with his keys. I could hear the keys rattle, and the lock turn. 

I began to cry again. “Our time may never come.”

Wills trembled with my weight when I leant against him. We wouldn’t fall to the ground. 

“No, it might not,” he said, and I think that he too was weeping.  

Jane Messer is the author of Night by Night, a novel, and has edited two anthologies: Certifiable Truths--stories of love and madness, and Bedlam--an anthology of sleepless nights.  She has published in a wide range of Australian journals.  She lives in Sydney.